Fauna of the Week--White Squirrel
I have no idea why I haven't posted an entry on our local mascot here in
. Blame it on synapse collapse. Or something more profane. But here, at long last, is the blog entry on
--the Eastern Gray Squirrel. The last part of the latin attributes the Carolinas, because this is where observation of the gray squirrel was first recorded. But even beyond the species, I'd like to introduce you to our version, the
The Eastern Gray Squirrel has a black variant--cute picture on
site--but the local hero or plague (depending on your point of view) is the white squirrel. We have a family festival named after the little bugger, with "white squirrel poop" (miniature marshmallows) dotting the sidewalks for days thereafter. The festival features crafts, great music and my favorite--soap box derby races for the young and young at heart.
Brevard's white squirrels are not albinos. In the photos here you can see that the eyes are normal, not pink. The vast majority of white squirrels in the area have some gray on them--a patch between the ears on top of their heads or a stripe of gray down the back. Regardless, I get a big kick out of them bouncing around the yard because they seem so improbable.
Right now, all of the gray squirrels are exhibiting typical "scatter-hoarding" behavior. When a perceived-as-scarce source of food appears (read corn on cob in feeder), they snatch up whatever they can get and quickly bury it in the immediate vicinity. Then they'll dig it up and rebury it later when they think no one is looking. We expect to be pulling up corn from amongst the penstemon come spring. Watching them "pat down" their stashes is one of my favorite observed behaviors amongst our squirrels.
Even though we are not having big year with our walnut tree, walnuts and oaks are typical foundation plants for large population densities of gray squirrels. The hunters in the area tell me we are having a banner year for acorns, so maybe the walnuts feel like they can take a year off. Besides nuts, gray squirrels will eat fungi, other tree fruits, seeds or catkins, bulbs and flowers (not all varieties) and insects. Insects may be especially important to young squirrels. They will also, of course, eat eggs and birds if they can get to them. Might be where they get one of there other names--tree rats.
A typical gray squirrel can live up to twelve years in the wild. Two of the main predators of gray squirrels are hawks and owls, but a good portion are also taken by raccoons, dogs, snakes, skunks--and cats. (
Baby squirrel pictured was brought to me by one of my cats as a gift when I lived in Georgia. He grew to be a perfectly robust teenager and was released on schedule.
) And humans. It is illegal, however, to kill a white squirrel in Brevard, NC, so don't bother bringing your .22!
If you've ever been cussed by a squirrel, you know that they can produce a number of interesting vocalizations. All that tail twitching and lashing is another means of communication. I don't even have to speak the language to know when they're displeased with me--how about you?
Of interest to me from a scientific standpoint is that the eastern gray squirrel is such a successful species that it is now an invasive species in several European countries, and in some ways, the US. South Africa, Italy, the UK and Ireland are all having problems with infiltrations of gray squirrels that are out competing and replacing their native red squirrels. Red squirrels in the US are suffering the same fate, since they are far more dependent on specific habitats than the gray squirrel. Gray squirrel adaptability and ingenuity (as any bird-feeding American can attest) is really incredible. Smart rats!